translation, meaning, language, laughter (silent)

aditya dev sood adsood at
Mon Dec 11 16:09:01 UTC 1995

In response to the recent drumroll from a learned professor at Harvard:

The grammar may be wrong*The grammar may be wrong*The grammar may be wrong
but that has less to do with the distinction between a 'good' (=literal?) 
translation and a poor (=flowing) translation, and more to do with the 
aporia between languages. Demanding that words and phrases be translated 
in the same tense and order as in the original is impossible. Why? 
because 1) no two languages have the same field of tenses, nor the same 
sorts of gradiations between them 2) on occasion it is entirely 
indeterminate whether a given word is an adjective or noun or other part 
of speech 3) A given word, even should we (who?) collectively agree 
tranlates as water into English, does not face resistance from the same 
field of synonyms and associations, as the original word, whether, pan, 
tanni, vaari or eau. (with thanks to Dipesh Chakrabarty).

Take, for example a translation of 'aap' from Hindi into the 'vous' of
Francais: these correspond more closely than any approximation we could
OF THE ORIGINAL -- and we would fail to catch sarcasm, deference,
formality, or arrogance. There is simply no way to force languages to be
transparent to each other, for their internal lucidity is enabled only by
their opacity to systems outside of them. One may read the obscure writer
named de Saussure, Ferdinand, for the knowledge that languages are
arbitrary, and not trunks on a tree. 

No phrase or sentence fragment in Sanskrit 'means' anything in English. 
All translations are acts of fracture and reconstitution, wherein the
foreign thought-sound is domesticated. Certain 'gross' aspects of the
original, for example its polemic are easily transmitted, and through
gifted translator and through clumsy footnotes, on occasion 'subtle'
elements like humor, irony and context may be reconstituted into the NEW
text. It is NEVER the same text. For the sake of our listserver please see
Walter Benjamin, 'On the Task of the Translator,' in Illuminations. 

How to communicate that arguing about a translation is akin to arguing 
about a line in a novel? -- you may not like it, but that doesn't make it 
wrong. One's only effective response is to write another reflection of 
the world, or in this case, of the text (of which you BELIEVE this is the 
translation, for how do you even know...? Is that too much for right now?)

'Learn the error of language, O grammarian,' it has been said. Language
lies; all language leads away from the tatva of the world, yet it is only
through language that we approach brahma. Correct language equals meaning no 
more than pi = 3.15926..., as was so positively proposed. ityevam 

And even if language is deceitful, it is hardest on those who fail its 
first test: It demands that one respect one's interlocutors, especially 
one's polemical adversaries. For every time one invokes one's adversary, her 
name resonates through the ether as a mantra only to make her stronger. 

With the season's greetings shivering down my spine I hope to remain,

yours warmly,

Aditya Dev Sood
University of Chicago.

ps: I don't know about you guys, but as a sanskrit grad student i'd just
be tickled pink if my professor were to jokingly point out that the cover
of a book depicted a commentary (imagine!) instead of the text itself. In
fact i'm still laughing now... 


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